Dilettante's Diary
JUNE 11, 2021
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How Fiction Works
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Sex for Saints
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Housekeeping
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The Jesus Sayings
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Head to Head
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Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
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Me In Manhattan
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About Me
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MOVIES
BOOKS
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MYSTERIES/CRIME books
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OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

Reviewed here: The Last Taxi Driver (Novel); At the Center of All Beauty (Arts, Sociology); The New Chimpanzee (Science); Boys and Sex (Sociology); Ridgerunner (Novel); On Vanishing (Sociology); The Shape of a Teardrop, Old Babes in the Wood, and Alvin (Short Fiction); Molly of the Mall (Novel)

The Last Taxi Driver (Novel) by Lee Durkee, 2020

Lou, our first-person narrator, drives cab for a crabby owner of a company in a small Mississippi town. This novel covers one day in his working life. A day packed with incident, we might say. The characters who populate the back seat of his cab consist of a panoply of deadbeats, losers and wackos, for the most part. We go from one crisis to another. (The book reminds me of a true-life memoir by a taxi driver who said that everything the human body is capable of had happened in the back seat of his cab.) To say that a day in Lou’s cab amounts to a “wild ride” would be too obvious a play on words. But don’t expect anything like a plot.

There are, however, some continuing threads. Certain characters turn up again and again. Meanwhile, we gradually learn something about Lou’s background and his inner life. He was a college teacher until he was fired for getting into a fight with a student. He’s in his fifties and he has a son who was once badly injured in a traffic accident. He’s wondering what to do about a depressed girlfriend at home. The point of the book, then, isn’t just a portrayal of the downside of life in early 21st century America. It’s about one man’s struggle to stay afloat in the storm, to make sense of it all.

It’s hard to think of a word that summarizes Lou’s attitude to life. Cynical? Sardonic? Pessimistic? Curmudgeonly? All of those perhaps. And yet, other qualities make him far more interesting than those terms would suggest. Not just his interest in Buddhism, Shakespeare and classical music. There are the times when we see him trying to decide whether or not he’s going to do the “nice” thing; if a customer asks for a favour, will he grant it or not? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. He wonders: “Why is kindness so [gross swearword] hard? Lou keeps begging one of his regular customers, a genteel old lady, not to read the novel he published years ago for fear she’ll be offended by the obscenity in it. When he drops her off at her home, he knows that she’s on the other side of the door praying for him. So he stands there for a minute, his head resting on the door, “trying to absorb her prayers.” As he himself puts it: “My theory is that every human being has a human being cowering inside them.”

And he has his reasons for believing that. Much as his imperious boss irritates him with her edicts over the phone, he admits that he kinda likes her when they meet in person. In fact, when he thinks about it, he realizes that by getting drunk people home without their killing anybody, she has “saved more lives than the average doctor.” Her son, a malevolent and dangerous creature if there ever was one, arrives back in town and turns out not to be quite as bad as Lou remembered him. Lou has an unexpected reconciliation with the student he’d assaulted in the attack that got him fired from his teaching job. He realizes that he’s always painting people with his misconceptions of them. “None of it’s true, not really. Or even if that rumor is true, you still don’t know but a fraction of the story. You weren’t there.”

One chapter consists of Lou’s rules of the road, so to speak, or his advice to other drivers. That might seem like an incongruous interruption of the story but the chapter comes as a welcome pause in the mayhem. A couple of my favourites of Lou’s rules: if you need a truck, make sure it’s at least four times larger than necessary, or else somebody “might insinuate behind your back that you are gay or have a small dick, or God forbid, both;” and “Never blink your headlights at a UFO unless you want to be seriously fucked with.”

This may or may not be a tribute to the writing – I’m not sure – but at one point, I forgot that it was fiction. Lou was talking about something awful that had happened to his son and I was suddenly swamped by a wave of sympathy for this poor person who was suffering so badly out there somewhere. Perhaps the real-life quality of the book comes from the fact that the central character may be very close to the author’s personality. According to the biographical information offered, Lee Durkee did drive a cab at one time. The author’s photo on the cover of the book looks exactly the kind of man who would produce a yarn like this: a lean, very lived-in face, long jaw, a mischievous grin and a devilish spark in the eyes.

On the other hand, some aspects of the book are a little too obviously fictional. I was okay with Lou’s surrealistic flight back into the neighbourhood of his childhood (where he experienced a schooling that included brutality and violence almost beyond believing). But Lou’s lengthy disquisition on his experience of UFO’s didn’t enthrall me as much as most of the book did. Well, probably this man would entertain such thoughts about UFO’s, even if he once was a college lecturer. The calamitous ending is off-the-charts, perhaps. But how else would you expect such a day to end. Home on the couch with a beer and a ball game on tv? Hardly.


At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life (Arts, Sociology) by Fenton Johnson, 2020

Fenton Johnson, a much published novelist, memoirist and university lecturer, sets out here to prove that a life of solitude works best for many creative people. He cites the obvious precedents like Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Henry David Thoreau, Eudora Welty, Rabindranath Tagore and others. Some of the less obvious examples are people who may have been married (even more than once) but, for whom, solitude lay at the heart of their lives. People like that include Paul Cézanne, Nina Simone and the African American anthropologist and novelist, Zora Neale Hurston. Those people, Mr. Johnson believes, maintained a solitary attitude to life no matter how socially involved they may have been at times. Mr. Johnson himself could be included in this latter group. Although he was in love for three years with a man who eventually died of AIDS, Mr. Johnson sees himself as someone who has a fundamentally solitary approach to life.

Some of Mr. Johnson’s subjects stated quite explicitly that they chose the solitary life in order to devote themselves to their art; they wax rhapsodic about how their refusing to bind themselves to one person has freed them to love all of humanity. In other cases, Mr. Johnson is inferring from the writers’ works and their behaviours that some such commitment was the governing factor of their lives. Of Ms. Welty, Mr. Johnson says: “She dedicated herself to the ideal of art over the compromise of marriage; to be vulnerable not to a particular individual but to the whole world. Was this by circumstance or by choice? The answer, revealed in her correspondence and her later work, is surely and simply ‘yes’ and ‘yes.’” As for editors and critics who saw Ms. Welty’s life as sad and lonely, Mr. Johnson feels they completely miss the rich appreciation and the fullness of life that her solitude brought her.

A subject that often comes up in his explorations of the lives of the creative people, both the single and the partnered ones, is self-love. Mr. Johnson heartily endorses the notion that the truly creative person requires a strong and healthy dose of self-love to commit to the work that he or she sees as so vitally important. And how does that differ from narcissism? “The narcissist wants to be admired through the work; the solitary is content in its making.”

About his own solitude, Mr. Johnson gets poetic, almost mystical:

"For infinity draws me onward, the earth draws me back to the stardust from which I am made. In my deepest heart I long to be one with the One; death along with birth is only a particularly striking milestone on a journey that, properly understood, has no beginning and no end. Time, as the quantum physicists tell us, is an illusion; and if time is an illusion, then death is an illusion. All moments are present to this moment – a truth that, like any good koan, cannot be explained but instead must be lived out."

And:

"The solitary forgoes openness to one for openness to all. Through all, I seek the One, the great Alone, a supernatural unity ... [my elipsis] ... The great, the incomparable reward of being alone is the opportunity, if I can be large enough to rise to its occasion, of encountering the great silence at the core of being, a silence that is at the same time uniquely mine and one with the background hum of the universe. To live for the changing of the light seems adequate reward."

This is one of those books that, when you first hear about it, elicits the spontaneous response: "Oh, that’s the book for me!" I thoroughly believe in stoking the fires of the inner life as much as possible. And yet, this is also one of those books that doesn’t please you as much as you hoped it would. It’s not that Mr. Johnson doesn’t make his case well. He does so elaborately and eloquently, in chapter after chapter. But, at times, it strikes me that there’s too much cerebration, too much intellectualizing, too much spinning of webs of meaning that may or may not have much relevance to ordinary life. Granted, everybody has to find whatever meaning they can to make their lives livable; some of us spend more time mulling it over than others do. Good for Mr. Johnson that he has latched on to whatever has made his life meaningful in its unique way.

However, there were times in this book that I wished he would leave off the intellectual speculation, the philosophizing and theorizing. That may be why the parts of the book that I enjoyed most are the ones where he talks about daily routines in his own life and the lives of his subjects, the parts where he regales us with family stories. Those sections of the book give more of a sense of the grit of real life that’s missing from the more esoteric writing. Memories of his family’s gatherings at their remote rural Kentucky home are particularly rich. Both his mother and his father were solitaries in their special pursuits: gardening for her, woodworking for him.

Without in any way intending to register anything like a beef about the book, I would have to say that, in my estimation, Mr. Johnson doesn’t quite do justice to the married or the partnered state in life. He grants that, for some creative people, it has worked well. But he sometimes talks about marriage in rather cold, calculating terms. He speaks of it as being about property rights and government involvement. Granted, there are certainly those elements to marriage. But it’s about so much more, so much other than those things. And, if official recognition of marriage is so meaningless, why have so many gay couples been clamouring for it?

Mr. Johnson seems particularly unappreciative of the meaning that many of us discover in having children. Maybe what says the most about it is the fact that he doesn’t say much about it. Is he, then, one of those childless people who assume that procreation is simply an egotistical urge to prolong one’s existence somehow or other? That is not at all what having children is about, as I see it. It’s about passing on life to new beings who will, we hope, have the gift of enjoying life as fully as we have. Sharing life, in other words.

In his discussion of Rabindranath Tagore’s having abandoned his wife and children, Mr. Johnson wonders whether it would have been better for the “families and lovers” of such artists if they’d remained single and childless. And yet there wouldn’t have been any “families” to benefit from the situation if these artists had remained childless. I think Mr. Johnson’s saying it might have been better for such families, i.e. children, if they had not existed hints at a failure to appreciate what having children means at the most fundamental level.

But maybe it would be too much to ask Mr. Johnson to appreciate that. Such a feeling wouldn’t be accessible to him as a single man, I suppose. For him to claim it would be faking. So we have to grant that, in his manifesto here, he is being true to the man he is.


The New Chimpanzee (Science) by Craig Stanford, 2018

Professor Stanford here brings together some of the latest research on our closest primate cousins (genetically speaking). To some of us casual observers of the natural world, it might not be obvious that these findings about the lives of chimpanzees are new or ground-breaking but they do provide lots of fascinating information that may offer some insight about how our branch of the primate tree evolved.

The facts reported in the book are mostly derived from studies of chimpanzee populations in seven specific settings. Four of them are in eastern Africa (Tanzania) and the other three are in Western Africa (Ivory Coast). The prose is clear and direct, throughout. The author, Craig Stanford, a professor at the University of Southern California, is cordial and generous towards the viewpoints that he disagrees with. Unlike some science books, there’s no attempt to obfuscate with erudition or abstruse vocabulary. The book is so chock full of fascinating information that it would be impossible here to touch on every point.

Just one problem with the book – Professor Stanford is so academically scrupulous in his reporting that he no sooner establishes some intriguing fact about chimpanzees in one area, than he follows-up with a report from another area that contradicts the previous one. So it’s hard for a reader to get an accurate overview of the subject. However, some general impressions do emerge.

Among some of them:

- males always dominate females in chimp communities;

- most females, when sexually mature, migrate to other communities, while the males remain in the communities they were born in;

- female chimps regularly employ tools more adroitly than males do;

- chimps who are orphaned fare poorly throughout their lives;

- in one community, more orphans were adopted by adult males than by females;

A researcher observing one community found that, until the age of two or three, a chimp spends no more than about three percent of its time in the care of a female who is not its mother; in other words, not much baby-sitting goes on. This may be because the females remain fertile almost until death, so there aren’t many grandmothers around who don’t have babies of their own to look after.

One of the subjects that interested me most in the professor’s study was culture. Prior to a discussion of cultural differences among chimp communities, Professor Stanford accedes that, as some would argue, chimps don’t have a culture in the sense of the symbolic imaging which some people take to be the mark of culture. However, they do have cultural differences in the way they do things. The way they use tools, for instance. Grooming practices can differ from one group to another. In this respect, the practices of one group of chimps can differ quite markedly from the practices of another that lives less than 100 miles away. Professor Stanford goes into some detail as to how these practices that are particular to his or her community are learned by the young chimp.

The question of why chimps hunt for meat is a complex one. As far as researchers can determine, meat comprises a very small portion of the chimps’ diet. (Baby monkeys are among their most common prey.) If I’m understanding the material correctly, Professor Standford is saying there isn’t a lot of nutrition to be gotten from meat that can’t be obtained from plant sources. So why hunt for meat? Researchers now think that maybe meat in the chimps’ lives has social implications. The way in which the meat is doled out says a lot about each recipient’s standing in the community.

What might be called protocol is a subject that shows chimps to be particularly human-like, I found. A behaviour called the “pant grunt” is required as a way of showing respect and deference to a chimp who is higher in the order of dominance. Sometimes the dynamics can be quite complicated as to whether or not the pant grunt should be given. Professor Standford describes one human observer’s watching a young male chimp trying to decide whether or not he’s required to give the pant grunt to another male who’s passing by. The process of figuring this out, as reflected in the younger chimp’s eyes, makes him seem like any boy who’s not quite sure how to respond to another boy in the schoolyard.

Professor Stanford conclusively demolishes speculation about one supposed example of the symbolic in chimp culture. Chimps have a way of creating huge piles of rocks at the base of certain trees. No one has been able, yet, to come up with any explanation as to why the chimps do this. No practical reason for it has been found. Some media have concocted theories that this represents some sort of “proto-religious behavior,” says Professor Stanford. He refutes emphatically the supposition that this could have anything to do with a notion of the sacred or the numinous.

The book concludes with Professor Stanford’s observations on what appears to be a certain controversy plaguing the field of primate study. Some people seem to feel that academics studying the primates should be doing more to preserve their much-threatened habitats. It’s as if the scholars are expected to throw down their notebooks and start becoming activists. The professor points out that the academics’ study of the primates has helped to bring them to the public’s attention and that several conservationist measures that have been taken are a direct result of the scientists’ making the public more aware of the primates’ lives.


Boys and Sex (Sociology) by Peggy Orenstein, 2020

While Peggy Orenstein was working on a previous book, Girls and Sex (2016), people told her that she really should be writing about boys and sex. To Ms. Orenstein’s surprise, the boys she subsequently interviewed turned out to be even more willing than girls to spill the beans.

Of the more than one hundred boys she interviewed, many were recommended to her by her colleagues or by professionals who heard about the study she was doing. Some of the boys were referred to her by the girls she’d interviewed and some boys reached out to her themselves. (The book pays some attention to the needs and difficulties of gay and trans male teens but most of the focus is on young heterosexual males.) The boys ranged widely in terms of race, religion and political leanings but were mostly from middle class families and were likely headed to college. Although this policy may have an elitist sound to it, it seems reasonable to me. Not only are boys like that most likely to have parents and educators who would pay attention to a book like this, those boys are also likely, in their manhood, to have a significant effect on society’s developing attitudes to manliness and masculinity.

One of the strongest messages that comes through in the book is that boys Ms. Orenstein interviewed feel tremendous pressure to come across as macho, aggressive sexual conquistadors. It’s all about gaining acceptance to “dick school.” They have to brag about dominating girls in sexual encounters, being rough with them, forcing themselves on the girls. That’s the sort of thing that the guys think their peers want to hear. The more degrading any sexual encounter is for a girl, the more “hilarious” it’s supposed to be in a boy’s telling of it.

Ms. Orenstein follows the story of one boy who acted objectionably towards a girl, then realized the error of his ways, and tried to establish a more equitable friendship with her. The process took a lot of time and a lot of careful footsteps and discussion to come to a satisfactory situation. Even young men who have volunteered to lead campus workshops on sexual ethics can find it difficult, in their own relationships, to enact the high standards that they’ve been promoting.

Of course, no discussion of sexuality nowadays can omit the subject of the pornography that is so widespread and easily accessible in our society. Ms. Orenstein deplores the fact that youngsters can have their innocence jeopardized at an early age, merely by access to a phone – sometimes accidentally, and sometimes through the initiative of an older teen. Definite conclusions on the effect of porn are hard to come by, though, because the subject isn’t a strong draw for funding organizations, and it’s hard to design a study that would require subjecting underage people to material that, legally, they shouldn’t be exposed to. Also, it can be hard to disentangle the effects of porn on teens from the effects of so many other influences. Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that a lot of supposition and surmise crops up in the studies that Ms. Orenstein does cite; most of the connections are correlative rather than causal. We hear that this is “associated” with that; that boys who are exposed to such-and-such are more likely to be connected with this or that. It’s all worrying but there are no clear and safe ways forward.

Other than the recommendation that parents should be as open as possible in discussing sexuality with their kids and that they should try to demonstrate wholesome, healthy and respectful attitudes to the subject. Many of the boys interviewed mentioned that their dads, while good, honourable men, never talked about feelings, least of all of the sexual kind. That makes it hard for the sons to integrate feelings like kindness and consideration into their concept of sexuality. But Ms. Orenstein does offer the good news that many young men long for “a more expansive, holistic version of masculinity.”


This is an important book. One that should be read by educators, social workers and other professionals involved in the raising of young people. Politicians, too. And parents, of course. But I don’t think many people would take on this book for casual reading. That’s not just because so much of the material is unsavoury. (A subtitle for the book might be “Everything You Didn’t Want to Know about Sex.”) Apart from the personal stories, there’s an almost overwhelming journalistic sweep to the book – a plethora of studies and surveys, much conjecture and speculation. Not exactly a fun read.


Ridgerunner (Novel) by Gil Adamson, 2020

It’s the early 20th century and most of the action is taking place in the part of the Canadian Rockies that we now know as Banff. Hanging over the proceedings are thoughts of the First World War over in Europe, but we don’t see or hear much about that, apart from some glimpses of prisoners of war who are made to work in gangs around Banff.

The story concentrates mostly on a small cast of characters. There’s Moreland, a rough-and-ready guy who’s known for being a stealthy burglar but who’s able to escape the clutches of the law for the most part. What he’s trying to do with his burglary is collect enough cash and goods to give his son Jack a good start in life. Jack, twelve years old, has been deathly sick for a while and his dad has left Jack in the care of a sort-of nun who has helped Jack recover from his illness. While Jack was in hospital, his mother, Mary, died – whether from the same illness or not, we don’t know.

That “sort-of” nun who’s looking after Jack is the biggest problem with the book, if you care about plausibility. She has left her Anglican convent and lives now in the big old house that her father left her. Sometimes she wears her religious garb and sometimes she doesn’t. People still think of her and refer to her as a nun. Is it believable that any woman would live such a life: a nun and yet not a nun? Ms. Adamson treats the situation as though it’s not particularly strange. Maybe things were different in the early part of the 1900s, but this doesn’t look anything like the kind of religious life that I was familiar with in the latter half of the century.

One true thing that’s said about this woman: “no one knew her heart.” We eventually discover that there’s almost a kind of Gothic grimness to the woman. It’s she, with her scheming and her determination, who provides some plot in a novel that, otherwise, meanders along without a strong narrative drive. The writing is fine, the descriptions are engaging. We’re told that a potential conversation “would get out of hand and burst like a pillow full of feathers.” The atmosphere is resonant:

"There they sat, three silent figures at the table, while outside the day drew fingers of light through the trees that lay across the dead man’s coatback, as if to hold him there, pressing him to earth. Birds at their dawn chorus gusted into a barrage of sound, ancient behaviour, purpose unknown, hundreds of them calling the day into being, just as they had done a thousand years ago and would do a thousand years from now."

For me, the best thing about the book was that I could totally identify with Jack’s attempts to get free from his guardian and to make a life for himself in the cabin hidden in the woods where he had lived with his parents before illness interrupted their lives. The details of his day – cooking, making fires, looking after his horse, exploring the woods – are captivating. He’s helped to a considerable extent by an older indigenous man who also lives in the woods. Ms. Adamson manages to make all this believable. Even in the case of Moreland’s career in burglary: he’s just smart enough and skillful enough to pull off most of the escapades he undertakes.

Much as I enjoyed the depiction of Jack’s plucky way of making a life for himself, I was disconcerted by the novel’s loose-shod narrative style. It’s definitely a pre-Hemingway type of writing; that means there’s a lot of the author’s telling us about things, the author’s interpretation of things, rather than just showing us what happens. About Moreland’s past, for example, we’re told, “He’d spent his childhood in a kind of irritable haste,” and “The truth was, he was simply and undeniably himself...”Also: “Emelia Cloud followed the dull routine, and the hours were marked by her father’s circadian rhythm...” One more example: “Ten years earlier, Wilson’s former business partner Sean Macklin had gone out with two British landscape painters on an easy trip to Johnston Canyon, where there was a meadow full of scenic flora, as well as deep, spring-fed pools....”

Some aspects of the book’s leisurely narrative approach, however, work very well. Ms. Adamsom is casual when it comes to doling out information. We find out about things in a manner that’s by no means chronological. To take one key point as an example, it’s not until nearly the end of the book that we learn the full story of the illness that afflicted Jack and his mother. It feels as though the author is sitting with us and filling us in on historical details as they come to mind. It looks natural and spontaneous but I suspect there may be considerable art in it.

Towards the end of the novel, some strategic plot developments do kick in, some actual tension arises. Even so, the question may come to a reader’s mind (this one’s mind at least): what is this book about, what is the point? Is it anything other than a rambling story about a boy and the weird adults that he’s associated with? On closing the book, though, a person has to admit that Ms. Adamson does have some striking things to say about human interaction. One character observes that “some relationships are inexplicable from the outside, and anything you assume about other people will likely be wrong.” Maybe the subject the book says the most about, in its odd way, is the meaning of being a mother or a father.


On Vanishing: Mortality, Dementia, and What It Means to Disappear (Sociology, Psychology) by Lynn Casteel Harper, 2020

On ordering this book from the library, I thought it was going to be about how to face one’s own mortality and how to prepare for one’s exit from the world stage. However, the book turns out, almost entirely, to be about how we should care for people with dementia.

It’s not hard to sum up Ms. Harper’s thesis in a few words: people who suffer from dementia are still human beings, they are still themselves, and we should treat them with the respect and dignity that we accord to every other human being. Ms. Harper makes that point clearly and convincingly (if somewhat repetitively) throughout her book. It’s something she knows a lot about, being a Baptist minister and chaplain who has worked extensively with elderly people. She vigorously refutes the notion that people lose their identity when dementia takes hold or that the people whom we have known and loved disappear at such time. Given our failure to appreciate that, she finds, the social response to dementia “creates as much suffering as the disease itself.”

One person who crops up often in her personal associations with dementia is Ms. Harper’s grandfather, Jack (his last name isn’t given, as far as I can tell). He had been a successful and highly respected physician but his final years were marked by increasing dementia. Not by any means under-estimating the many problems that that presented (she makes the point that she doesn’t want to “sentimentalize” dementia), Ms. Harper finds that there was a certain beauty and meaning in his condition. While he had been a flashy, extroverted person for most of his life, something of a show-off, there was now a humility and openness to him that she found extremely touching. In silent communication with him she felt closer to him than she ever had before.

Ms. Harper also spends considerable space in her book commenting on the final days of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the revered American Transcendentalist of the 19th century. While some commentators deplore the gradual loss of his intellectual prowess, Ms. Harper, on the basis of observations from his close friends and family, sees his forgetfulness as a “natural extension of his vocation.” He was relaxing into the simpler pleasures of visiting with his grandchildren and friends, enjoying nature, being present in a way that, as one friend put it, manifested the “gift of purely spiritual continuity.” The key to his serenity was that his condition hadn’t been medicalized or labelled; in those days it was taken as an ordinary outcome of life. (The labelling of Alzheimer’s disease didn’t come until the first decade of the 20th century.)

Among the many expressions of depth and meaning that Ms. Harper has witnessed from people with dementia, one that I found most impressive concerns a certain woman that she calls ‘Victoria,’ a persistently agreeable, up-beat patient in a dementia ward: the kind of patient known as “pleasantly confused.” Her comments seldom made sense but they seemed to radiate good cheer. At a Maundy Thursday ceremony, however, when Victoria was asked to hold out her hands for them to be washed by the minister, she dissolved in a flow of tears running down her cheeks. Obviously, the ceremony had touched something very real and deep in Victoria that no one had noticed before. As the presiding minister commented to Ms. Harper about Victoria: “She remembered all of who she is.”

As for the cognitive losses that come with dementia, Ms. Harper points out that none of us has a perfect grasp on reality. We’re all subject to illusions of one kind and another. Some of the common ones, for example: “I am safe, tomorrow will resemble today, you get what you deserve.” None of us can lay an exclusive claim to reality. It follows, then, that “we can locate dementia experiences along the continuum of human experience, rather than as alien or aberrant behavior.”

Ms. Harper speaks of her own departures from the common perception of reality in her experiences of sleep walking, a phenomenon that has apparently afflicted her quite a bit. She feels that the changed reality that a person with dementia might feel is something like what she experiences in sleep-walking. She compares it to living within a Claude Monet impressionistic painting. While spatial clues all but dissolve, the result is not unreason or chaos. “I follow inner motions, blurry yet strangely related. Emotion and compulsion, desire and action, the conscious and unconscious, all commingle.” It’s all about the “conjunctive nature” of dementia which, she says, “challenges us to contain multitudes, to live between the gone and not gone, between departures and arrivals – to somehow accept the ands.”

At times, Ms. Harper’s writing lapses into rather journalistic prose – when she’s dishing out statistics on elder care, for instance – but the best of the book consists of her personal impressions, verging on poetry and mysticism and, of course, drawing on her spirituality. Some readers might see this subjective tone as the weakness of the book; for others it demonstrates the book’s strength. I found it refreshing to encounter a theologian who can take an unconventional view of certain iconic scenes in the Christian cannon. Her thoughts about the resurrection of Jesus note that the first gospel to be written, the one attributed to the author named “Mark,” originally ended with the discovery of the empty tomb; there were no accounts of appearances by the risen Jesus. She likes to think of a Houdini-like magician standing there wielding a wand over the empty tomb. For Ms. Harper (if I’m understanding her correctly), that says something profound about the mysteries of presence and absence that permeate our lives, especially in the circumstances of people with dementia.

With respect and sympathy, she refers to the cases of people who have felt that, at the prospect of encroaching dementia, they had to ask for medically assisted suicide. However, she clearly believes it’s a great tragedy that anyone should be driven to such a decision because of the feeling that society will no longer see them as a valued person.

Courageously, Ms. Harper ends her book with a consideration of her own chances of suffering from Alzheimer’s. Given her parents’ histories, her prospects don’t look good, statistically speaking. But she has declined to take the genetic test that would give more certitude on the likelihood of her being afflicted by the condition. So she proceeds calmly on the assumption that it likely will happen to her. Imagining how she might preface a living will, she thinks of these words: I declare dementia a defiant guest but a guest nonetheless, ordained to purify you and me, to render us thoroughly and finally human.” Summing up her attitude to the subject, she says: “I declare my will to live with dementia as an act of protest against a dominant culture that wishes not to be troubled by my presence. I pronounce my body deep in dementia a sign of resistance to a society that sees elders, especially elders with dementia, as burdens.”


The Shape of a Teardrop (Short fiction) by T. Coraghessan Boyle, The New Yorker, March 15, 2021

There is only one word to sum up this story: Astounding. It’s about a young man still living with his parents. He’s unemployed and the father of a little son, but he’s estranged from the son and the boy’s mother. The story is told in alternating voices: the young man’s and his mother’s. She sees him as pretty much of a n’er-do-well who is a terrible drain on his parents and a worry to them. (With good reason!) He, on the other hand, sees himself as someone who is more sinned against than sinning.

The astounding thing about this story is that, while this guy, by anybody’s judgement, is pretty much of a lout, you can’t help feeling sympathy for him. How that happens, I do not know. Unless it’s from the fact that he is so candid about his thoughts and feelings; so uninhibited in his political incorrectness. His blistering bad humour and his sardonic wit come off the page like fireworks. Much as you might disapprove of him, you know you’re in the presence of a suffering human being. Same for his mother! The story ends on a tiny gleam of light that you could barely hope for. The precariousness of that hope makes the anguish of the story all the more excruciating.


Old Babes in the Wood (Short Fiction) by Margaret Atwood, The New Yorker, April 26 & May 3, 2021.

Two elderly sisters are spending time at an old family cottage. The story teems with details that will strike familiar notes to every reader who’s ever spent time in similar circumstances: mice droppings everywhere, mouldy wood, malfunctioning equipment, leaks, lists of chores to do, things that need fixing. Not to mention exasperation at the impractical decisions that were made by a progenitor in the building of the cottage many years ago.

Annoying as this all is, the two sisters have a somewhat slap-happy, off-hand way of expressing their aggravation: casual, colloquial, flippant. A lot of self-deprecating humour about the inconveniences of aging is tossed into the mix. Catching herself dwelling on a painful memory, one of the sisters tells herself: “Don’t be so fucking maudlin.” That moment touches on a current of sadness that runs under the daily routine and gives depth to the story. Intimations of a loss that’s never quite explained (and all the more touching for that!) remind a reader of the fullness of life’s joys and sorrows.


Alvin (Short Fiction) by Jonas Eika, The New Yorker, April 19, 2021

Our first-person narrator arrives in Copenhagen to advise a bank about the installation of some new computer programs. But he finds that the bank building is demolished, likely because of an explosion in the bank’s power supply lines; nothing is left but a hole in the ground, filled with debris. Having intended to stay at a guest suite in the bank, he doesn’t know where to turn, so he goes to a café to think things over. A young man comes in and gets talking to him. The young man invites him to come and sleep at his apartment. Apart from one large bed, it’s sparsely furnished. The computer consultant stays for several days. The two men pass their time wangling financial deals on their computers.

You keep thinking you know where this story’s heading, but it doesn’t. A surprising amount of detail about financial affairs – particularly about derivatives trading – is more comprehensible than you might expect. And the writer has a way of looking at things from a perspective somewhat different from the ordinary one. You get unusual observations from him, such as: “Sometimes my entire working life felt like one big coincidence, or like the inevitability of a network of connections that belonged not to me but to the market, the market of Internal Operating Systems.” And: “I was overcome by sadness, a big, grey-white feeling, and at its edge hovered a dark object that I couldn’t grasp. Occasionally, I glimpsed a corner or a fracture, but as soon as I tried to uncover more of it, it disappeared, and then when I wanted to return to my flimsy starting point, that was gone too.”

The story is shaping up to be a compelling study of an odd relationship between two men but then it takes what can only be described as a sort of sci-fi turn. Things become completely surreal. On top of feeling cheated, I find myself considering a fundamental question about all literature: don’t we expect it to teach us something, to show us some truth, preferably one that hasn’t previously occurred to us, and one that we can hang on to? What, then, do the editors of the prestigious New Yorker expect us to take away from this???

On further reflection, though, and on re-reading the story, I find a current of strangeness running through the whole thing. Maybe that could be seen as a portent of what’s to come? Maybe the story’s point is that there’s always a barely perceptible weirdness just under the surface of things?


Molly of the Mall (Novel) by Heidi L.M. Jacobs, 2019

It’s not hard to see why this novel appealed to NeWest publishers, given their mission to produce new writing about Western Canada. Has anyone else ever published a novel that’s set mainly in the famous Edmonton Mall? Of course, that’s not the only thing the novel has going for it. Its first-person narrator, Molly, is a feisty young woman with a lively sense of humour. Keen on her English lit courses in university, she’s hoping to become a novelist but she’s working at a shoe store in the Edmonton mall during the summer vacation.

One thing that tells you a lot about Molly and her milieu is the origin of her name. She’s named after the celebrated Moll Flanders, of the eponymously named novel by Daniel Defoe, because Molly’s dad, an English professor, happened to be teaching the novel when Molly was born. When she speaks of other children who were named for similar reasons by their English prof parents – her own brother being Heathcliff, for instance – we begin to get the satirical flavour of the novel. Indeed, Heidi L.M. Jacobs, Molly’s creator, goes on to show that she has a great gift for social satire. Various professorial types are skewered: the pompous, the pedantic, the boring. Not to mention students: the pretentious, the slackers and the cheaters. The managers, co-workers and customers in the mall also come in for their share of the narrator’s droll critiques.

There’s no denying that Ms. Jacobs is an entertaining and engaging writer. What kept me reading the book was Molly’s attractive personality. You can’t help rooting for her way of fumbling through the humiliating calamities she runs into on a daily basis. Ms. Jacobs creates other vivid characters too. Molly’s parents are particularly attractive as somewhat befuddled middle-agers. Strangely, though, there’s little physical detail about most of the characters; we get hardly any idea of what anybody actually looks like. One student is regularly referred to as “cute Angus” but we never find out how he’s cute.

An important feature of the book is its setting in the mid 1990s. No cell phones, no texting. That makes for a somewhat less frantic life than a woman like Molly might be living today. Complicated as her relationships are, developments aren’t tumbling on her one after the other. She has plenty of time to think about receiving a letter or a postcard or a call on the landline at home.

And also time to dream up outrageous scenarios. This is the problem with the book for me. There’s far too much fanciful imagination on display. Full marks for the creative writing but where is it leading? Not that I mind Molly’s constant comparison of her own state with that of the great heroines in the works of Jane Austen, George Eliot and the Brontë sisters. Admittedly, large chunks of the book would be inaccessible to people who aren’t familiar with those authors’ works, but I didn’t mind skimming through these references, even if I couldn’t remember every detail of the scenarios Molly recalls. What tried my patience to the breaking point were the passages where Molly dreams up facetious essays and answers to exam questions. A section about Molly’s study of a fictional Canadian poet might be seen as a legitimate parody of Canadiana but I found it intolerably far-fetched.

A tiny thread of plot does make it through all the falderol to the end of the book. I found myself really caring about Molly’s affairs in that respect but I wished she’d stuck more to that story with less of the literary flim-flam.

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